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Trusted Messengers Key?

Consumer Advocates Eager for ACP Outreach Grants, Pilot Program

Consumer advocacy organizations welcomed a draft order aimed at increasing awareness of and boosting enrollment in the FCC’s affordable connectivity program, highlighting the need for organizations on the ground to enroll hard to reach populations (see 2207150063). Commissioners during the agency’s meeting Friday will consider an outreach grant effort and a pilot program targeting households receiving federal housing assistance.

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One draft order would establish a grant program for eligible entities to do outreach to boost ACP enrollment. Congress authorized the FCC to spend some of the program’s $14 billion on outreach, in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, after consumer advocates sought funding to boost awareness and enrollment. The FCC lacked the authority to spend money for outreach during ACP’s predecessor, the emergency broadband benefit program (see 2111090063). Up to $100 million would be made available for outreach grants through the order if adopted.

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance is “thrilled the FCC is moving forward on the ACP outreach grants” and the effort’s “focus on trusted organizations,” emailed Executive Director Angela Seifer. “Trusted organizations are essential to increasing awareness of ACP, guiding eligible households through the sign-up process and on to related resources such as affordable devices and digital skills trainings,” Seifer said: The program is a “valuable resource moving us closer to digital equity.”

How successful ACP is depends on “trusted messengers in communities helping to explain the program and assist community members in signing up,” emailed Brandon Forester, MediaJustice national organizer-internet rights and platform accountability: “What's most important and exciting for us is that those community groups … will finally be resourced to make sure more people are aware of the program and more people ultimately will be able to get and stay online.”

This is a watershed moment for making sure that we truly close the digital divide,” said Internet Innovation Alliance co-Chairwoman Kim Keenan. It’s “the right thing getting done at the right time with the right ingredients,” Keenan said, saying organizations already providing in-person services will be able to use this funding to inform eligible households about ACP and how to receive the benefit.

The draft is a “great step” and “highlights the importance … for Congress to work toward making the ACP a permanent program,” emailed JudeAnne Heath, director-national programs, Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership: There’s “still lots of work to be done to ensure communities have access and affordability to not only fast and reliable internet but also devices and digital skills training.”

Local officials and community partners are the trusted messengers who ensure that communities in need learn about the ACP,” said Ryan Johnston, Next Century Cities senior policy counsel-federal affairs: “They cannot reach eligible populations without funding for outreach initiatives.” The FCC's decision to not limit the type of outreach activities eligible for funding was "the best choice," Johnston said, because it "enables local governments and community partners to identify overlooked populations and implement targeted outreach strategies that support residents throughout the enrollment process."

The draft order's "categorical bar on entities such as [the National Lifeline Association] from participating in the outreach grant program suggests a myopic approach to a complex problem," emailed NaLA Attorney John Heitmann of Nelson Mullins: "It would have been better to assess proposals based on their merits, including built-in safeguards." Consumers "should be directed to broadband providers in a non-biased and technology-neutral manner that respects the right of each consumer to choose the type of service ... that works best for their households," Heitmann said.

Another draft order under consideration would establish a one-year pilot program to increase awareness about ACP and increase enrollment among households receiving federal public housing assistance. The “Your Home, Your Internet” pilot program, an initiative led by Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, would give certain entities access to the national verifier to assist eligible households in the application process. The program is “exciting,” Forester said, and “I'll be interested to see what lessons are learned from slightly expanding who is able to access the National Lifeline Accountability Database to help ease assistance in signing people up for the program.”